EAU CLAIRE: Ministry supports Mexican dairy farm laborers

By Lynette Wilson
Posted Mar 5, 2013

[Episcopal News Service] St. John’s Episcopal Church in Sparta, in the Diocese of Eau Claire, began serving the migrant population in 2007 when then-rector the Rev. Leigh Waggoner noticed an increasing number of Hispanics in her rural, west central Wisconsin community.

“When I was in Sparta, I started seeing Hispanics and started asking questions around and found that there was a Pentecostal church in a neighboring town, and I went to see what that was all about,” said Waggoner, now rector of St. Barnabas of the Valley Episcopal Church in Cortez, Colorado.

During Waggoner’s visit to the neighboring town, a man approached her and expressed his interest in learning English. It was close to Christmas, so Waggoner said she could help after the holidays, to which the man responded, “’How many people can I bring? Fifteen?’”

In the end, she said, five people turned up at St. John’s, and Waggoner and one of her parishioners volunteered to help.

She then started Lugar de Reunion, or meeting place, which was a ministry of the Diocese of Eau Claire that was funded by a grant from the Jessie Ball duPont Foundation.

“We got trained in ESL, and it was clear that these super folks needed a place where they felt safe,” Waggoner said. “I had a vision for what it [Lugar de Reunion] could be and wrote a grant, found a director and pulled together a board of directors; it’s an amazing place.”

Wisconsin’s $26.5 billion, 365-day-a-year dairy industry depends on a workforce of which 40 percent of the laborers are migrants, mostly Mexicans from the southwestern state of Oaxaca, according to agricultural workforce studies.

Farmers’ inability to hire American workers made the industry dependent on foreign laborers and has rallied Wisconsin’s farmers around immigration reform, said Jayme Sellen, the government affairs director of the Green Bay-based Dairy Business Association, in a Feb. 1 interview on Wisconsin Public Television.

“The result of not having immigrant workers on the dairy farm would be a loss of production of milk. We’d have to reduce the amount of cows that we milk because they need constant care. They need care every single day of the year and multiple times and we just– unfortunately, the pool of applicants out there is very shallow at this point in time,” said Sellen.

Migrant workers first began appearing on Wisconsin farms as early as 1920, with larger waves arriving with the workforce shortage that coincided with World War II, according to a brief history of immigration in Wisconsin.

Some 1,500 mostly Mexican immigrants, and a handful from Guatemala and Peru, live in Sparta and the surrounding area, and Lugar de Reunion has 300 individuals, from families as well as single people, on its registry, said Alfonso Sanchez, director of Lugar de Reunion, adding that some people work in factories, but most work on farms.

“Our main program is English classes, and we have free access to the Internet,” he said. they also offer a distance-learning education program funded by the Mexican government, which provides materials and tutors to help the migrants finish primary and secondary schools through ninth grade, he said.

“Most of the people who come from Mexico have low education, third, fourth or fifth grade, and education is a primary need,” said Sanchez.

Lugar de Reunion is staffed by Sanchez and seven regular volunteers. It is supported by an $82,000 diocesan grant through March 2014.

— Lynette Wilson is an editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service.